Monday 30 April 2007

The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

We kick off in Seattle in 1896 which I know from doing the wonderful Underground Tour there was very different to what you'd see today. Certainly I don't doubt in the slightest Jimmy Stewart driving his herd of cattle right up to the dock, paying off his men who obviously want to kill him and then fighting off those they hire to arrest him instead for murder. Apparently two of the four men he hired turned back and didn't live to talk about it. Getting rescued by half dressed stranger Ruth Roman who saves his bacon by climbing into bed in front of him and hiding him from those running the boat is a little less believable but hey, this is Hollywood.

Stewart is Jeff Webster, who loads his cattle onto a steamer heading north to the Klondyke, via the border town of Skagway, all of which looks great in glorious Technicolor or would if some of the scenes weren't obviously sets with painted backgrounds. The dialogue is just as shaky, with a whole bunch of exchanges that play like tired old stand up comedy routines today, almost as quaint as vaudeville.

Somehow it remains notably fun though, even when John McIntire, playing crooked Skagway Sheriff Gannon, holds court from a gambling table, passing out glasses of whiskey along with his snap judgements which free Webster of murder charges with one hand and steal his cattle with the other. Maybe the problem is that I don't know enough about the genre yet to decide whether this is as cliched a western as there gets or as definitive a one. Did this copy everything else or did everything else copy this?

After a while trying to work out what the real plot is all about, because our expectations of what's happened and what's going to happen keep changing. Initially it seems pretty dumb but the script soon reveals itself to be pretty clever. There are certainly reasons for all those dumb things to happen because clever things follow them, every time and while they start out feeling like salvage work, it soon becomes obvious that they're the product of an astute script by screenwriter Borden Chase, who based the screenplay on his own story.

The film has plenty more than just twists. It has a whole slew of gorgeous landscapes, courtesy of cinematographer William Daniels, who makes the Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta look somewhat reminiscent of the scenery that wowed everyone in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also has a moral ambiguity that feels very refreshing. Jeff Webster is the hero of the story, I guess, but he's hardly a hero. Just look at the decisions he makes. When an avalanche buries the other half of his party he isn't even going to turn back. When he shoots a man dead he doesn't see why he even needs to look at the body. When the people of Dawson realise that they have one lawman for fifty thousand square miles of territory, he turns them down flat. What makes all this interesting is that he isn't a bad guy, merely not what we're conditioned to know is a good guy. He treats his horses right because they're animals, but expects men to treat themselves right, hardly today's attitudes but understandable ones.

Stewart made eight films for director Anthony Mann, and I'm quickly coming to discover that they're some of his most interesting. Half of them are westerns and this ranks up there above The Naked Spur and Winchester '73 in my estimation on a lot of fronts, however great they are. It tells the truth about so many things we often weren't told in the movies: how the reality of how the law was the man with the fastest gun, corruption was the norm and allegiances shifted with the wind.

The people telling the story are the right ones, not just Stewart but names I'm beginning to know well like Walter Brennan, Jack Elam, John McIntire and perennial villain Robert Wilke and even some of those I knew anyway like Kathleen Brennan and Henry Morgan. There are also a couple of others here who I probably should know: the leading ladies, saloon owner Ruth Roman playing older than her years and lovestruck Corinne Calvet playing younger than hers.

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